Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Professor Zachary Turpin (CAS ’03) on Uncovering Lost Literature and Tips for Picking the Right PhD Program

Zachary Turpin, professor of American Literature at the University of Idaho, and literary sleuth responsible for uncovering lost Walt Whitman writing and unknown poetry by Anne Sexton, shares what these discoveries mean for literary scholars and readers, and how to pick the right PhD program for you.
Zachary Turpin

What did you study at NYU?

I studied English and American Literature.

What interests you about studying literature?

In high school, I devoured a lot of classic literature and took AP classes that meant a lot to me and figured I would do something with English. 

What drew you to a career in academia?

An important question! Honestly, I'm not sure there's much of an answer, but what I can say is that even as an undergrad, I knew very well that I was made to be some sort of educator, yet when I tried my hand at secondary education I found myself wanting something more. In the end, I might have been a high school English teacher—and a very happy one!—but my PhD program gave me the chance to try on a number of different hats before making a final decision, and I quickly realized that my obsessions tended in one direction and one direction only...


You uncovered lost writing by Walt Whitman, his advice columns on "Manly Health and Training," his novel, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, and most recently, unknown poetry by Anne Sexton. What do you see as the value in discovering unknown or lost literary works?

Uncovering lost texts is valuable for several reasons. The first is cultural: I think that recovering missing pieces of the great American cultural puzzle gives us all a better sense of what our artistic and philosophical heritage is, since discoveries can complete (or better yet, complicate) what we thought we knew about the giants of American literature. The second reason is critical, and pedagogical: It's helpful, I think, to realize how little we understand about American literature. Discoveries just happen to underscore our ignorance. Don't get me wrong, this is a good thing! Rather than being able to say that we are near a total understanding of the literatures of prior centuries, it's increasingly clear that scholars and casual readers alike have only just scratched the surface of the billions and billions of pages printed or handwritten during the 19th century (or 18th, or 20th). There's just too much print, with too many secrets hidden within. Far from being monolithic and complete, American literature is still very much a nascent thing, and the students of today are the people who will get to determine what American literature looks like in years to come. Digital-archival discovery is likely to play a big part in that. Which leads me to my third reason: Discovering lost texts, especially using cheap online tools, further democratizes literary study. It puts more minds and more cultures in charge of this big, hazy thing we call "American literature." And finally, there's the personal value: I simply love looking for lost literary secrets. Curiosity is a powerful thing. Par that with powerful, open-access digital tools, and who wouldn't want to start digging for more?

Why are you interested in finding work by women authors such as Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe?

If you've ever gotten anywhere near a "Great Books" list, you already know the answer to this one. Literature written by women in general and American women in particular, is rich, vital, gorgeous, soaring art. It is so good, in fact, that it was largely responsible for the rise of the modern print ecosystem in 19th-century America, in which the numbers of novels and literary periodicals exploded. Yet, at the time, that women's art was often derided as "light" fare, and now, when you look at representation of women's voices in so-called canonical lists, the selection simply don't speak the truth, proportionally. Nor do they fully reveal the power of womanhood and women's perspectives in 19th century art and life. Much of this imbalance came from world-war-era and post-war academics (1920s-1960s) making "canon-building" decisions that presumed the superiority of male art. It was hardly a question at all. Male writers were likelier to have Complete Works collected after their deaths, likelier to be taken seriously as pillars of a culture, likelier to engender critical cottage industries, and likelier to avoid genre-pigeonholing. But now, as more and more great work comes to light, it is increasingly clear that vast swaths of major American expression has been underattended, because it expressed (and very often, pushed the boundaries of) feminine ideologies. So, when I look for more Alcott or Stowe or Lazarus or even Dickinson (god help me), I'm looking for more beautiful writing—and you'd be amazed how much there is! But I'm also pursuing the truth of American cultural history, and that's a truth that we are all still unearthing, together.

Do you have any advice for current students or alumni looking to apply to a PhD program? 

Only look at fully funded programs. You should not be paying to earn your PhD. When applying, choose your schools / departments based on whether they have professors that fit your desired area of study. Be explicit in your personal statement that you want to work with them, and be sure to describe the sorts of projects / classes / grants / research / etc. on which you hope to collaborate. (When in doubt, be sure your personal statement has lots of proper nouns in it.) On the admissions committee's end, they'll appreciate being shown that you fit the department and that you promise to bring added value to it. On your end, planning to work with people who do what you (want to) do means you're likely to gain real expertise, have knowledgeable advisors, and get all-star rec letters when the time comes for the job market. 

Any book or author suggestions you feel we need to be reading right now?

I'm reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a 1,000-page novel about practical magicians in England during the Napoleonic Wars. I really shouldn't have started such a huge tome during the school year, but frankly I didn't exactly think it would be thrilling. I imagined it as good, but not great. It's written in the slightly turgid register of George Eliot, most of the characters are rather fussy Englishmen, and the humor is quite subtle. And yet every page is riveting. It's easily one of the five best books I've ever read. Ever. Clarke's storytelling skills and pacing, her characterization, her attention to details (especially those that reappear later), her incredible imagination for uncanny worlds, her positively perverse depictions of evil—she's unbelievable. Pick it up immediately. You'll recognize the cover when you do.

Walt Whitman had a pen name, Mose Velsor. If you wanted to have a pen name or an alias, what would it be?

Oh, I've thought this one through already! I'm no novelist, but I do have a minor talent for character names, and I've always wanted to use the name John Dark. It's sinister sounding, of course, but it hides an angel: If you say it aloud, you'll hear in it the name of one of France's most famous war heroes and saints...

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